Where nuclear holocaust is concerned, this ain’t my first rodeo, though at 6-years-old during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I didn’t understand until much later just how closely I’d come to being vaporized.
I do remember the drills, and if you’re of a certain age, I’m sure you do, too.
Mrs. Moreland marched the first-graders out into the long hallway at Muriel Vance Forbes Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas, a city with four Air Force bases and an Army post that surely made inviting targets. Classroom doors opened to the left and right as all the children in the entire school filed out into the hall, sat down and pressed small backs against walls tiled in bright yellows and greens. Teachers walked among us, telling us to be still and keep quiet.
Routine fire drills were nothing like this. In those, we’d escape mock flames to an assembly point outside. This was different, futile, though we didn’t know it then. There’s no escaping the inescapable. No surviving the unsurvivable.
My sister, five years older, also remembers, though with more context.
“I remember it very well. I was in sixth grade and my teacher, who was usually a positive and reasonable soul, was — as I see it now — terrified. I remember one day when we were supposed to be doing those duck-and-cover drills, some of us were laughing about something that some kid in the back had said. The teacher just blew up at us, ‘This is NOT FUNNY!’ “
No, it wasn’t funny. Children unfettered by fears they wouldn’t discover until later in life had no way of knowing that nuclear holocaust was no laughing matter. The adults in the room had to teach us that.
We had an adult in the room during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that may be the biggest reason why any of us are alive today. Here are excerpts from President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speech to the nation on Oct. 22, 1962:
“Good evening, my fellow citizens:
This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere . . .
“The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include medium range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D. C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area . . .
“This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base — by the presence of these large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction — constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas . . .
“Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small . . .
“The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere.
“Our policy has been one of patience and restraint, as befits a peaceful and powerful nation which leads a worldwide alliance. We have been determined not to be diverted from our central concerns by mere irritants and fanatics. But now further action is required, and it is under way; and these actions may only be the beginning. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced . . .
“My fellow citizens, let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead — months in which both our patience and our will will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.
“The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are; but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.
“Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.
“Thank you and good night.
Compare and contrast Kennedy’s words (full speech HERE) with those of Donald J. Trump, now dealing with what I’ll call the North Korean Missile Crisis:
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen . . .”
“If anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough . . .”
“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
Both messages, Kennedy’s and Trump’s are tough statements, perhaps justifiably in both cases. But there was nothing off-the-cuff about Kennedy’s remarks. He warns the Soviet Union to back off from Cuba while preparing the American people for possibly dire consequences. If you follow the link above and read the entire speech, you’ll see that the president gives a seven-point list of necessary actions to end the crisis, before closing with uplifting language about the justness of our cause.
Trump, meanwhile, just trades barbs with a tinpot dictator, lowering the office of the presidency with the same bombastic language you might expect from the despotic leader of some banana republic. He’s like a child playing with big-boy toys with consequences that he doesn’t truly understand. He offers nothing to the American people about possible diplomatic solutions, leaving such niggling details to his unqualified minions.
A quick study of the Cuban Missile Crisis indicates that the imminent threat to the United States was much greater than what we now face from North Korea.
But there’s at least one very important difference: In 1962, the United States had an adult in the room.